#11 – John W. Campbell and the Golden Age of Sci-Fi

#14 – Robert Heinlein Part I: The Juveniles A Reader’s History of Science Fiction

Robert Heinlein was one of the first major authors to write science fiction specifically for children. In this episode, we explore how he did it and what sets him apart from his contemporaries in this area, along with the other classic children’s sci-fi books up through the golden age. Book recommendation: Have Spacesuit–Will Travel Other books mentioned: The Tom Swift Series The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry The Chrysalids by John Wyndham Grumbles from the Grave, Chapter 3 John J. Miller on Starship Troopers Adam Gopnik on The Little Prince Farah Mendlesohn on children’s sci-fi Alec Nevala-Lee on Heinlein’s writing
  1. #14 – Robert Heinlein Part I: The Juveniles
  2. #13 – Isaac Asimov Part II: Robots
  3. #12 – Isaac Asimov Part I
  4. #11 – John W. Campbell and the Golden Age of Sci-Fi
  5. #10 – Stapledon and Lewis

John W. Campbell was the controversial longtime editor of Astounding Science Fiction who single-handedly directed the course of science fiction in the 1940s, a time that is not called the “golden age of sci-fi.” However, I argue the golden age continued through the 1950s as writers who got their start under Campbell began publishing on their own.

Book recommendation: Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement.

Robert Silverberg on the golden age.
The Internet Speculative Fiction Database’s “Most-Viewed Short Fiction.”
Cory Doctorow on Campbell.
My essay on “The Cold Equations.”

Other books mentioned:
The Black Cloud by Fred Hoyle

Check out this episode!

Posted in A Reader's History of Science Fiction, Science Fiction

Essay: The Real Problem with “The Cold Equations”

As part of tomorrow’s episode of A Reader’s History of Science Fiction, I felt the need to write a companion essay analyzing one of the most famous (or perhaps infamous) short stories in the history of the genre: “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin.

“The Cold Equations” was written in 1954 and published in Astounding Science Fiction under its longtime editor, John W. Campbell. It tells the tragic story of Marilyn, a young woman who stows away on a spaceship only to find herself forced to be thrown out the airlock because her added weight means that the ship does not have enough fuel to reach its destination.

It’s a shocking and deliberately disturbing plot, which ends the way it does because of Campbell’s urging rather than Godwin’s, as a subversion of the more typical stories where the hero always saves the day. It’s a well-written and highly-regarded story, but it has also been enormously controversial. Many people have criticized it both for things like sexism and plagiarism, and for engineering blunders that verge on ludicrous.

However, as I was thinking about this story, I realized those criticisms are missing something. The equations themselves aren’t as cold as Godwin and Campbell said. The situation wasn’t as dire as it was made out to be, even with all the human error in the story. And so, I wrote an essay explaining just what they got wrong and what was the simplest solution to Marilyn’s predicament.

Click here to read the essay.

Posted in Physics, Science Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Book Review: Delta-v by Daniel Suarez

Delta-v by Daniel Suarez is a new novel about the exploration of our Solar System. It’s been a popular topic in recent years, but Suarez does put a unique spin on it. This is the first sci-fi story I’ve seen with a detailed description of mining asteroids.

Note that the title of this book is properly “Delta-v” with a lowercase and italicized “v.” This is because delta-v, or Δv, is a mathematical symbol for a change in velocity, which is so critical to navigating in space.

This was a fun read. I enjoyed the portrayal of where space travel could be in twenty years, which was very plausible. There were some elements of the story I didn’t care for, but they didn’t detract too much from it. If you like space exploration, I can definitely recommend it.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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New Video: MegaFavNumbers

Yesterday, a bunch of Math (or Maths) YouTubers like Numberphile, 3Blue1Brown, and many others started the #MegaFavNumbers project, where mathematicians talk about their favorite numbers that are larger than 1,000,000.

Well, I’m not a mathematician by trade, but I do have a degree in math, so I thought, “I can do that.”

So now, I give you my first fully self-produced YouTube video. (My podcast gets converted and uploaded automatically.) In this video, I talk about the Very Large Numbers found in statistical mechanics to describe how many different states a system of molecules can have. These are huge numbers like 10^(10^23) where normal large numbers can’t even touch them.

What did I learn from this project? I learned that I need a better video editor. The Windows Photos app’s Video Editor looks good…until you try to use it for anything. But if I can find the right alternative, I wouldn’t rule out more video content in the future.

Posted in math, Video | Tagged , , , ,

#10 – Stapledon and Lewis

#14 – Robert Heinlein Part I: The Juveniles A Reader’s History of Science Fiction

Robert Heinlein was one of the first major authors to write science fiction specifically for children. In this episode, we explore how he did it and what sets him apart from his contemporaries in this area, along with the other classic children’s sci-fi books up through the golden age. Book recommendation: Have Spacesuit–Will Travel Other books mentioned: The Tom Swift Series The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry The Chrysalids by John Wyndham Grumbles from the Grave, Chapter 3 John J. Miller on Starship Troopers Adam Gopnik on The Little Prince Farah Mendlesohn on children’s sci-fi Alec Nevala-Lee on Heinlein’s writing
  1. #14 – Robert Heinlein Part I: The Juveniles
  2. #13 – Isaac Asimov Part II: Robots
  3. #12 – Isaac Asimov Part I
  4. #11 – John W. Campbell and the Golden Age of Sci-Fi
  5. #10 – Stapledon and Lewis

Olaf Stapledon and C. S. Lewis both explored the spiritual side of science fiction, albeit in very different ways. In this episode, we explore how they went about it and why one of them is considered a must read by many of the greats of the genre.

Book recommendation: Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon.

Other books mentioned:
Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon
Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis
Perelandra by C. S. Lewis
That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis

Check out this episode!

Posted in A Reader's History of Science Fiction, Science Fiction

Book Review: Junction by Daniel M. Bensen

https://www.flametreepublishing.com/ProductImages/junction-ISBN-9781787580947.0.jpg

This one might need a bit of background. Lately, I’ve been getting interested in something called speculative evolution, which is a branch of science fiction about how life might evolve on other planets—or in the future, or in Earth’s past, for example if the dinosaurs hadn’t gone extinct. This is more than just inventing aliens for a sci-fi story. This is inventing aliens with the whole environment they live and evolved in. The movie Avatar did this…decently well, with its lush jungle and many carefully-designed animals, although there was still quite a bit of room for improvement.

Sometimes, you’ll see works that are specifically about speculative evolution. The most famous ones of the twenty-first century are probably the docu-fiction series The Future is Wild and the sci-fi drama Primeval. And this is where Junction falls.

Junction is the debut novel of Daniel M. Bensen. I happened to see him advertising it on a speculative evolution forum, and I decided to check it out. In the story, Junction is a planet that is connected to Earth and many other planets via wormholes, and we see lots of speculative evolution there with lifeforms from other planets spreading through the wormholes to Junction and interacting with one another.

The science and the alien life, those were pretty cool. The plot, the characters—that needs some work. Mr. Bensen has made a fair start; I didn’t have any trouble getting through the book, which isn’t always the case, but honestly, I came for the aliens and stayed for the aliens.

My rating: 3 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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#9 – The Dystopia Classic

#14 – Robert Heinlein Part I: The Juveniles A Reader’s History of Science Fiction

Robert Heinlein was one of the first major authors to write science fiction specifically for children. In this episode, we explore how he did it and what sets him apart from his contemporaries in this area, along with the other classic children’s sci-fi books up through the golden age. Book recommendation: Have Spacesuit–Will Travel Other books mentioned: The Tom Swift Series The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry The Chrysalids by John Wyndham Grumbles from the Grave, Chapter 3 John J. Miller on Starship Troopers Adam Gopnik on The Little Prince Farah Mendlesohn on children’s sci-fi Alec Nevala-Lee on Heinlein’s writing
  1. #14 – Robert Heinlein Part I: The Juveniles
  2. #13 – Isaac Asimov Part II: Robots
  3. #12 – Isaac Asimov Part I
  4. #11 – John W. Campbell and the Golden Age of Sci-Fi
  5. #10 – Stapledon and Lewis

Dystopian fiction has become a popular subgenre of sci-fi in its own right, but the earliest dystopian novels shared some unique elements in common, inverting the standard tropes of the hero’s journey. In this episode, we explore what has made these stories so enduring.

Book recommendation: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.
My essay on the inverted hero’s journey.
Link to the Heroine’s journey.
Link to O’Brien’s speech.

Other books mentioned:
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Check out this episode!

Posted in A Reader's History of Science Fiction, Science Fiction

The Mars Perseverance Launch Is Tomorrow

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/PIA23962-Mars2020-Rover%26Helicopter-20200714.jpg
The Perseverance rover and Ingenuity helicopter drone (artist’s impression; credit: NASA).

Space news of the day: NASA’s Perseverance rover (formerly Mars 2020) will launch at 7:50 am EDT tomorrow morning on its mission to Mars. (It was originally supposed to be July 17, but it was delayed due to equipment problems.)

I wrote about this mission in January when they were naming it with a public contest of student submissions. The name Perseverance was chosen for the rover, and I was pleased to learn that my personal choice, Ingenuity, was chosen for the helicopter drone that’s riding along.

And can I just reiterate: how crazy is it that we’re sending a helicopter to Mars? For one thing, I’m pretty sure this is the first powered flight ever outside Earth, and for another, this is Mars we’re talking about–a planet where the air is so thin that it’s like being 100,000 feet 80,000 feet up (24 km) on Earth. (I forgot to account for Mars’s lower gravity in my previous post.) Meanwhile, the world record for a helicopter flight on Earth is only 42,500 feet (13 km).

Let me put that more clearly: we’re trying something on Mars that we haven’t even accomplished on Earth yet!

Anyway, live coverage of the launch begins at 7:00 am tomorrow morning on NASA TV. Be sure to check it out.

*Disclosure: I am a postdoc at NASA. All opinions expressed are my own.

Posted in Current events, Space exploration, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

#8 – The Dawn of Cinema

#14 – Robert Heinlein Part I: The Juveniles A Reader’s History of Science Fiction

Robert Heinlein was one of the first major authors to write science fiction specifically for children. In this episode, we explore how he did it and what sets him apart from his contemporaries in this area, along with the other classic children’s sci-fi books up through the golden age. Book recommendation: Have Spacesuit–Will Travel Other books mentioned: The Tom Swift Series The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry The Chrysalids by John Wyndham Grumbles from the Grave, Chapter 3 John J. Miller on Starship Troopers Adam Gopnik on The Little Prince Farah Mendlesohn on children’s sci-fi Alec Nevala-Lee on Heinlein’s writing
  1. #14 – Robert Heinlein Part I: The Juveniles
  2. #13 – Isaac Asimov Part II: Robots
  3. #12 – Isaac Asimov Part I
  4. #11 – John W. Campbell and the Golden Age of Sci-Fi
  5. #10 – Stapledon and Lewis

At the same time science fiction came into its own as a genre, cinema was doing the same. Here, we see an overview of the most notable sci-fi films of the silent and pre-Code eras, and how they influenced the culture.

Movie recommendation: Metropolis.

Other films mentioned:
Le Voyage Dans La Lune (YouTube link with 2011 restoration soundtrack.)
Frankenstein
King Kong

Check out this episode!

Posted in A Reader's History of Science Fiction, Science Fiction | 2 Comments

Book Review: A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor by Hank Green

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor: A Novel (The Carls): Green, Hank ...

I’ve previously reviewed An Absolutely Remarkable Thing by Hank Green, a science educator and YouTube host alongside his brother, John (author of The Fault in our Stars). Hank’s debut novel featured a visit by an enigmatic alien robot named Carl, and the world’s reaction to it seen through the lens of social media. I thought it was a good story and a brilliant commentary on today’s internet culture.

Well, now, it’s two years later, and the internet culture if anything has only become crazier, and Hank Green is back with the sequel, A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor. I have to say, this one is even better than the original. More action; more intrigue; more stakes. (Quite a few more words, for that matter.) And this time, he goes even deeper and broader into examining humanity’s relationship with technology and each other.

My rating: 5 out of 5.

Spoilers below.

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